Ralph Lauren

Discussion Questions :

  • Explain the difference between a traditional designer and a concept designer.
  • Where did Ralph Lauren work prior to working for him- self? Why do you think this experience was beneficial to his career?
  • Currently, how many divisions does Ralph Lauren operate under his name? Can you identify the target market of each division? Are they homogenous or diverse?
  • Why was Ralph Lauren’s use of an ethnic model such as Tyson Beckford important? Does the fashion industry use ethnic and diverse models? Why?
  • How has Ralph Lauren built on his original Polo Ralph Lauren brand to create an empire and an almost unparalleled career in fashion? Can you think of any other merchandisers with similar backgrounds?
  • Why is philanthropy important? How does philanthropy strengthen a brand presence?

 

  • When considering lifestyle merchandising,1 the name Ralph Lauren stands out. He has borrowed functional military garments, such as cargo pants and duffle coats, and traditional work clothes from Amer- icana such as canvas barn jackets and blue jeans, and transformed them into luxury garments that sell for thousands of dollars. Lauren’s method is known as lifestyle merchandising, which builds asso- ciations and gives historically practical garments an elevation to the luxury market. By placing mass fashion garments in luxury settings, Lauren redefines them and gives them a new identity. This image leads consumers to associate Ralph Lauren products with high-end status. From a single concept for selling ties to the 2011 launch of Denim & Supply, Ralph Lauren has displayed a brand image that is aspira- tional and classically iconic with an attitude uniquely its own for baby boomers and X, Y, and now the millennial generations (Figure 3.1).
  • Ralph Lauren has dedicated over forty years to the creation of his brand image. His lines are featured on fashion runways and in every department store across the nation. But contrary to popular belief, Ralph Lauren is not a traditional designer; he is a merchandiser—a concept designer. Lauren is the conceptual design genius behind his brand, not the person who drafts patterns, sews strips of fabric, or sits behind the computer-aided design software program. Instead, he goes out and finds vintage garments, antiques, and other histori- cally relevant items and steers his team into recreating that particu- lar item in the manner that should be Ralph Lauren. As the king of merchandising, he has total creative license to dream up ideas that influence his brand. For example, how do you sell a pair of ripped-up and paint-splattered painter’s pants for $400? His biography is a com- ponent of his brand; without Lauren, the man, the garments are worthless. Lauren has maintained control over every aspect of his business so that it perfectly reflects his vision.
  • history of a MerChandiser
  • There have been many articles and books written about Ralph Lauren. Recently, he published an autobiography about his ascent to the top of his field.2 Ralph Lauren presents a glamorous life and highlights all of Lauren’s wonderful accomplishments. Some biog- raphies, such as Genuine Authentic by Michael Gross, are not always so complementary,3 whereas others, such as Ralph Lauren: The Man, the Vision, the Style,4 make him out to be a hero, a man among men. It is important to consider both sides when reading this chapter, as the main purpose is not to critique Ralph Lauren from a personal per- spective but to highlight his growth as a lifestyle merchandising and branding powerhouse.
  • history of a Merchandiser
  • Ralph Lauren was born on October 14, 1939, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His real name was Ralph Lifshitz, but in his late teens, he and his brothers had their names changed to Lauren. He had a normal childhood, with a modest upbringing. He grew up in the Bronx and lived with his parents in a two-bedroom apartment. He shared a room with his brothers throughout his childhood and often wore their hand-me-down clothes. He became accustomed to the worn look of the garments and eventually enjoyed the style of the apparel. The casual look of the Ralph Lauren line would later reflect nostalgia for his childhood.
  • Young Lauren purchased clothes from the Army/Navy sur- plus store, Alexander’s discount store, and Discount of the Day. He enjoyed these clothes because he knew no one else would own them.5 According to most biographers, his personal appearance became an obsession. He became infatuated with his body, skin and, most obviously, his clothes.6
  • Although Lauren never finished college, he did attend City Col- lege of New York for two years. His first retail position was at Brooks Brothers in men’s furnishings in the late 1950s. In the mid-1960s, he took a position with Boston-based tie manufacturer Rivetz. Sources indicate that while he was an average salesman, his appearance management was extraordinary.7 He believed that by dressing in a particular style, he would be iconic in the manufacturing business.
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  • He utilized self-promotion as a way to stand above his peers and get attention from clients. Lauren’s unique style allowed him to gain sales and a stylistic reputation. Whereas some thought his appear- ance was unusual, others viewed him as a genius. He became skilled at networking in the New York garment district. He learned early on that building relationships was essential to creating his own brand.
  • the polo Line
  • After attending a polo match and seeing the opulent lifestyle associ- ated with the sport, Lauren put “the cart in front of the horse” and created the name of his product line—Polo—before any of the actual products. To Lauren, brand image was everything. In 1967, Beau Brummel, the Cincinnati-based tie firm, gave Lauren an opportunity to launch his own line of ties by looking beyond the fashion trends of the time. His concept was to sell wider ties with a larger knot at the top. During a time when ties were only 2 to 3 inches wide, his ties measured 4 inches across.
  • Lauren also sold his ties at higher prices than the competition. To him, if the price was higher the client would perceive that the qual- ity was better. During this time, Playboy and the menswear peri- odicalDaily News Record (DNR) featured articles about Lauren’s new ties. The title of the article in DNR was “The Big Knot.”8 This article attracted interest from buyers for Bloomingdale’s and other high- end retailers. After his line of ties was established, from 1968 to 1969 Lauren expanded his Polo menswear line. Conceptualizing the per- fect in-store presentation for his product, Lauren opened the first men’s shop-within-a-shop for his collection at Bloomingdale’s in New York City.9
  • In 1971, Lauren established a line of tailored shirts for women, based on the cut of men’s suits. That same year, he debuted the Ralph Lauren women’s shop-within-a-shop at Bloomingdale’s and introduced the Polo player logo on his product lines.10 He also opened his first store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Jerry Magnin, whose great-grandfather started the luxury department store I. Magnin, financed the store. This was quite an accomplishment for a young merchant who had been in the business for only about five years.
  • fiLMs and fragranCe
  • This store was the first freestanding store for an American designer brand. By 1980 there were seven more stores in the Ralph Lauren chain, in Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, Houston, Detroit, Chicago, Palm Beach, and Dallas.11 In 1972, the Polo logo shirt was introduced in twenty-four colors. The marketing campaign stated, “Every team has its color—Polo has 24.”12 Ralph Lauren merchandise was now sold in exclusive stores such as Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, and Saks Fifth Avenue.13
  • Lauren hosted his first women’s fashion line during this time, and although the clothing line was hailed as extremely stylish, the fit of the garments was horrible. Instead of using standard-size models, Lauren used his wife Ricki Lauren and colleague Buffy Birrittella as size models for the garments. Both were svelte and trim, had very little cleavage and were a size 2. Most customers were unable to even fit their arms into the sleeves of the women’s oxford shirts. These sizing issues were eventually remedied.14 Lauren continued to cre- ate menswear, women’s wear, and accessories over the next several years. Then his brand’s exposure was increased through the motion picture industry.
  • Films and Fragrance
  • In 1974, Ralph Lauren’s design style became recognized around the world through the release of The Great Gatsby, starring Robert Red- ford (Figure 3.2) and Mia Farrow. Although most of the garments for the movie were actually styled and constructed by costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge, Lauren inspired the men’s garments. Aldredge won the Oscar for the costumes and was even asked to sell her fashion designs from the movies at the Bloomingdale’s store in New York.
  • In 1976, Lauren received his second Coty award for women’s wear and was inducted into the Coty Hall of Fame for menswear.15 By this time, Ralph Lauren had established himself as a key figure in American design. To expand his business, Lauren launched his Polo line for boys in major department stores. The line reflected his mens- wear, complete with ties, blazers, khakis, and oxford shirts bearing the embroidered polo player.
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  • In 1977, with the assistance of costume designer Ruth Morley, Ralph Lauren received honorable mention in another motion picture by providing the clothes for Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in the movie Annie Hall. With the launch of this film, a trend for eclectic combinations such as classics with vintage style became popular in men’s and women’s clothing. For the film, both Woody Allen and Diane Keaton wore Lauren’s current fashion line (Figure 3.3).16
  • In 1978, Ralph Lauren launched a line inspired by the American West. Author Colin McDowell states that it “hailed [Lauren] as the man who ‘recaptured’ America for America and it rebuffs the errone- ous impression that Ralph Lauren’s fashion is too British.”17 With the launch of the Western product line, Lauren decided to become part of his brand image by posing in ads. By modeling his own products,
  • he began to create the image that he was authentically Western. Even though he had never been a real cowboy (but has since become one), Lauren began to create the reality that surrounded his child- hood fantasies of cowboys living on ranches. During this year Ralph Lauren also launched his first fragrances, Lauren for women and Polo for men. It was the first time that a brand introduced both a men’s and women’s fragrance at the same time.18
  • These two fragrances enabled Lauren to enter a new niche market of consumers who perhaps were avid fragrance and grooming pur- chasers but not necessarily familiar with Lauren’s clothing line. The distinct scent of leather, wood, tobacco, basil, and oakmoss makes the Polo brand immediately identifiable. The floral (violet, carna- tion, rose) and wood spice of Lauren for women is also quite dis- tinct. These two fragrances are still quite popular. The company even
  • created an 8-ounce spray bottle (which is very uncommon) of Polo for those who are obsessed with the fragrance.
  • redefining the Lifestyle and Going Global
  • In 1979, Lauren refreshed his image with a unique twenty-page marketing campaign using photographs by fashion photographer Bruce Weber in national magazines. As described by author Colin McDowell, “The ads featured little or no text, frequently using non- models, in which the clothes are seen as part of an overall lifestyle. The results, almost cinematic in breadth, captured the public imagi- nation and have been frequently copied.”19
  • The ads firmly established Lauren as the lifestyle brand. The pop- ularity of the Weber photographs helped Ralph Lauren become an international fashion mogul. With captions such as “Rough wear—it was made to be worn,” the ad campaign was the model for today’s lifestyle brand advertising. These ads inspired companies such as Abercrombie & Fitch, which also used Weber photographs to create its lifestyle advertising campaigns.
  • In 1981 Lauren debuted his Santa Fe collection, which influenced his designs throughout that decade and continue to be seen in his collection (Figure 3.4). The collection was recognized by the international com- munity as a substantial contribution to the world of fashion because it was the first to introduce the theme of the American West to high-end fashion. Ralph Lauren became known as the company that created the authentic spirit of America by using fashions inspired by the West- ern frontier. The fashion line continues to be significant in the United States and Europe. The Santa Fe collection generated an upscale image of Ralph Lauren as a lifestyle brand that presented a particular image of Americans to international markets. It romanticized the American West, establishing an image of American fashion with cowboy boots and hats, Western shirts, denim jeans, big buckled belts, rawhide fringe jackets, prairie shirts, flannel shirts, and thermal henleys.
  • The Westernwear frenzy crossed the ocean in 1981 with the open- ing of the Ralph Lauren store on Bond Street in London. The store was an instant success. Ralph Lauren was now the first American design company to have its own European boutique.
  • the empire Grows
  • Lauren’s company continued to flourish, launching new product lines, expanding into the international market, creating award- winning fragrances, and sharing the wealth through philanthropic efforts. Its success is a result of networking, creative thinking, a focus on increasing public awareness, strategy, and most importantly, a clear vision for the brand—a consistent lifestyle image and story.
  • ralph Lauren home, Out of Africa, and the New York Flagship Store
To expand his merchandising empire, Lauren then turned his atten- tion to products for the home.20 The venture would extend the Lauren lifestyle into the consumer’s home environment. The ads for the three home design lines—Log Cabin, Thoroughbred, and New England—displayed images of traditional home furnishings with a rugged twist and simply stated “How Tradition Begins.” Each line had its own branded message. Log Cabin reflected a luxury cowboy suite, and Thoroughbred was reflective of an English country house.21
  • In 1984 Ralph Lauren’s design concepts appear to have been influ- enced by the movie Out of Africa, which starred Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Lauren had remained friends with Redford since The Great Gatsby. Out of Africa was in preproduction when Lauren released his line of traditional safari styles with the rugged and worn style that is now synonymous with Ralph Lauren. Many of Lauren’s ads during this time looked as if they were mimicking stills from the movie.
  • In 1986, Ralph Lauren opened his flagship store in New York City in a building that was previously a mansion belonging to the Rhine- lander family (who never lived in it). The building, located on Madison Avenue at 72nd Street, was completely renovated. The store was to become a Ralph Lauren masterpiece, reflecting everything the Ralph Lauren brand stood for in the mind of the consumer (Figure 3.5). The first Ralph Lauren boutique in Paris also opened that year.
  • From exotic Fragrances to the rugby Store
  • In 1990, the Lauren image of high quality and luxury extended to yet another award-winning set of fragrances with the launch of Safari for both men and women. It was the first lifestyle fragrance that was merchandised with a range of accessories and home furnishings to complement it. The Safari fragrance won the coveted Fragrance Foundation’s FiFi award for Fragrances Star of the Year in 1990 and again in 1991. The Romance fragrance for women was launched in 1998 and received the FiFi Fragrance Star of the Year award and the Best National Advertising Campaign award. Romance for men soon followed and received both awards in 1999.
  • In the early 1990s, RL Jeans Company and the Polo Sport Line were launched with a store opening in 1993 at 888 Madison Avenue, across the street from the Rhinelander store (which has since become a women’s mansion store). RL Jeans Company and the Polo Sport brand marked a change in the advertising style of Ralph Lauren, as well as a shift in the target market for the company. It was during this campaign that Jamaican model Tyson Beckford (Figure 3.6) became
  • the leading model for Ralph Lauren. Prior to the launch of Polo Sport, Lauren had used primarily Caucasian models in his ad campaigns. Beckford’s face would be the new look of Ralph Lauren over the next few years, appearing in ads for the fragrance Polo Sport, for under- wear, and eventually for the Purple Label division.
  • By using Beckford in his ads, Lauren made a strong statement con- cerning diversity and the concept of lifestyle merchandising to the global market. At this time, rappers, hip-hop artists, and other black celebrities were wearing baggy clothes. MTV and VH-1 played videos of these stars wearing baggy Ralph Lauren stylized clothing with their underwear waistbands exposed. The looks started influencing street fashions. Lauren knew this market had significant spending power and would purchase his clothes. Beckford’s face and the ads for Polo Ralph Lauren underwear and Polo Sport would connect the brand with relatable markets. With both these less expensive lines, new consumers would emerge: Polo Sport was cut, designed, and fitted in a baggy silhouette reflective of the streetwear of the time, and Polo Ralph Lauren underwear had a lower pricepoint, allowing those who normally could not afford Ralph Lauren to own a part of the brand.
  • In 1993, Lauren introduced the Double RL line, named after his Colorado ranch. Double RL, sometimes referred to as RRL, reflected a romanticized heritage lifestyle of military men, men’s tailoring, and the cowboy. Flannel shirts, denim jeans, cargo pants, mili- tary shirts, and traditional-cut suiting reflected the styles worn on TV shows such as Bonanza, Hogan’s Heroes, and Downton Abbey. The line carried a hefty price point, with most garments appearing as if they had been worn for years (think very high-end grunge with cowboy hats, leather bags, and silver accessories). This look was one of Lauren’s favorites, with form-fitting cuts that reflected Ralph Lauren’s personal style.
  • Ralph Lauren Purple Label debuted in 1994 with its line of men’s tailored and custom clothing. This advertising campaign also fea- tured Ralph Lauren as the model. The clothing was made from finer fabrics with a tailored silhouette, and the line was introduced when casual Fridays became all the rage in the business sector. This line was designed to bring custom-made garments to the retail sector.22
  • froMexotiCfragranCes to the rugby store
  • Lauren added paints to his home goods line in 1995,continu- ing the lifestyle branding messages his company had built over the years. The colors ranged from Gray Flannel, Suede, and River Rock to Duchesse Stain.23 The paints added a finishing touch to the look of his home furnishings brands.
  • In 1996, Polo Sport Women was introduced and won the FiFi award for Best National Advertising Campaign. Polo Jeans Co., a line of casual wear for young consumers, was also launched. This moder- ately priced women’s collection was reminiscent of the traditionally tailored Polo-style line that Lauren had created in the early 1970s. This division of Polo brand became Lauren’s better women’s sports- wear line in all major department stores.24
  • In 1997, Polo Sport launched the RLX line of authentic high-tech sports clothing. And Ralph Lauren opened his first restaurant adja- cent to the Chicago flagship in 1999. That same year, Polo Ralph Lauren acquired Canadian specialty retailer Club Monaco.25 Known for its sleek and narrow fashion assortment in basic colors, Club Monaco continues to operate in locations in the United States and Canada.
  • com was launched in 2000, allowing consumers to buy merchandise on the Web. Eventually the “Create Your Own” feature was added to the website, as well as an online magazine called RL Magazine. During the 2002/3 fashion season, Lauren cre- ations were shown on the runways in Milan; the Purple Label line for men was shown in the spring along with the women’s Blue Label line; and the company’s first children’s-only store opened on Madi- son Avenue. It was the first freestanding children’s wear store, fea- turing the same quality and style of the Polo brand line.
  • Ralph Lauren’s Rugby division, dedicated to the Generation Y, was launched in 2004. The Rugby line represented a nostalgic look at the Ivy League experience and the ideals of a collegiate setting. Shoppers understood the preppy look with a twist; unlike his competitors, who identified this look with icons such as whales, alligators, and ducks, Lauren used the skull-and-crossbones for the Rugby product line. Rugby associates wore dreadlocks, colored hair, tattoos, and even body piercings, unlike the crisp, clean look of those found at
  • Polo Ralph Lauren or competitors such as Abercrombie & Fitch or American Eagle, who were targeting the same market.
  • Some critics have stated that Rugby was Ralph Lauren’s response to the popularity of Abercrombie & Fitch. However, this author disagrees. The product assortment in the Rugby line was more European than that found at Abercrombie & Fitch, and the stores’ ambiance was completely different. But in 2011, Rugby was closed and replaced with Ralph Lauren’s new line for young hipsters called Denim & Supply. Denim & Supply (Figure 3.7), found exclusively at Denim & Supply stores and Macy’s, shifted from an Ivy League look to an inner-city hipster look with a mix of grunge, artistic style, and historicism. Like its predecessors Polo Sport and Rugby, it was a hit with the young college and high-school crowd at a price point they could afford.
  • Ralph Lauren continued his brand’s global awareness by open- ing flagship stores in Moscow (2007) and Hong Kong (2014). While opening the Hong Kong location Lauren globally launched his Polo Red cologne signifying good luck and happiness in Chinese cul- ture. Other noteworthy achievements have included his use of 4D technology to caste fashion shows on his flagship store in London
  • a star is born
  • to celebrate a decade of technology and innovation. He repeated this strategy when he launched the new Polo Ralph Lauren line for women in 2014 to salute the new store on Fifth Avenue. He has become the man associated with sponsoring U.S. Olympic athletes and outfitting them in the finest apparel, and he sponsored the tele- vision show Downton Abbey in 2013.
  • a Star Is Born
  • The standard of excellence associated with Lauren and his company has been recognized repeatedly. In 1992, Ralph Lauren received the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Lifetime Achieve- ment award, one of four top honors he has received from the orga- nization over the years. In 1997 Polo Ralph Lauren became a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange, and in 2000 Ralph Lauren was inducted into the Fashion Walk of Fame in New York.
  • Lauren’s philanthropic endeavors are well known. The man loves people. In 1993 Polo Sport fragrance sponsored the first annual Race to Deliver. This event raised funds for the charitable organization God’s Love We Deliver, which provides hot meals for housebound people with HIV/AIDS.26 Ralph Lauren has also been a huge contributor to the 7th on Sale charity for HIV/AIDS. His support for breast cancer campaigns was rewarded with the first Humanitarian award from the Nina Hyde Center for Breast Cancer,27 which was presented to Lauren by Lady Diana, Princess of Wales. In 2000, RalphLauren.com donated $6 million to establish the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention at North General Hospital in Harlem, and the Pink Pony campaign donates 10 percent of all proceeds from that line to cancer research and awareness programs.
  • Lauren’s commitment to the arts and education was recognized by Brandeis University with an honorary doctorate of letters. In 1998, a corporate gift of $13 million from Ralph Lauren went to the Save America’s Treasures Campaign to help preserve the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key’s “The Star Spangled Banner.” In the wake of the World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001,28 Lauren estab- lished the American Heroes Fund, raising $4 million for the relief effort and the scholarship fund for children of victims. He continued
  • his community relations with a $110,000 donation to the Abyssinian Church of Harlem. The church thanked Lauren with an award given by then Vogue magazine’s André Leon Talley, who stated:
  • What Michelangelo was to the Sistine Chapel, what Carl Sandberg was to the American iambic pentameter, and what F. Scott Fitzgerald was to the grammar of the American romance story, Ralph Lauren is to American Style. His vision, his commitment to excellence, his incredible style and grace, his elegance, his profound philanthropic spirit speaks volumes for this great leader and man.29

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